Bust of Louis XIV

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Bust of Louis XIV, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1665
By BLAIR HUXMAN

Created in 1665, Bernini’s bust of Louis XIV is known as the “grandest piece of portraiture of the baroque age.” The king commissioned the sculpture during Bernini’s visit to Paris. The visit was made to not only improve relations between the Italian papacy and the French court, but to also design plans for the Louvre. While the plans for the Louvre were discarded and considered a failure, the bust is Bernini’s most significant and successful contribution to the French from his visit. 

Louis’s bust was created over the course of three and a half months. The king sat for 13 hours total, an hour for each sitting. Paul Freart de Chantelou documented Bernini’s voyage and also detailed the process of creating the bust. To begin the portrait, Bernini made small clay models and drawings of the king after having chosen the marble. During the process people constantly came into Bernini’s studio to critique his work. One royal mistress insisted to Bernini, “Leave it alone now, another touch and you’ll spoil it.” Comments like these went ignored as Bernini toiled over the piece until satisfied. 

Paul Freart de Chantelou described Bernini working late into the afternoon into a state of collapse and being unable to eat. Bernini carved the pupils after first marking them with charcoal as his final step. Bernini chipped away at the marble during each sitting and finished several months later. Louis rushed to the studio when he heard of its completion. Bernini placed the bust on a richly colored carpet to contrast with the whiteness of the marble. He told the king, “it is done. I wish it could have been even better. I have laboured over it with so much love that I honestly think it is the least bad portrait ever done by my hands.” It is then recorded that Bernini burst into tears and ran out of the room. Bernini’s intense pride for the bust was greeted with instant success from the French. 

Bernini beautifully showcases his skill for sculpture in this piece. The long curls twist and wind gently down the king’s face and his robe blows gracefully in the breeze. Louis’s armor can partially be seen under the drapery but is not emphasized or particularly ornate. He faces the direction of the wind confidently and assertively, preparing to give a command. During one sitting, Bernini rearranged the king’s hair to give more exposure to his forehead and brow. Considered strange and odd looking at the time, the look quickly gained popularity through the French courts and became know as the “Bernini Modification.”

However, some art historians believe Bernini did this intentionally to create an unflattering shape for the king’s head. Louis’s face is not depicted proportionally - he has too high of a forehead and too small of eyes. However, this did this not hinder its reception. Louis proudly displayed the bust in the Palace of Versailles where it has remained for centuries. The popularity of the portrait has endured the centuries as it is still praised to be a masterpiece to this day. 

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